The Tragedy Hidden Away in the Epidemiology Bulletins

The health ministry's epidemiology bulletins are out for the first time since 2015. They show a ravaged health system, where diseases once erradicated strike hundreds of thousands and maternal and infant mortality have spiked alarmingly.

One mark of how far off the rails Venezuela has gone is that the routine has become newsworthy. Take epidemiological data: anywhere else it just gets released as a matter of course and only a handful of experts take notice. Not in our Tierra de Gracia — here, it gets a write-up in Reuters.

As well it should: it’s news. Venezuela hadn’t published any official epidemiological data since 2015. Monday’s bulletin pulled back the curtain on a world of hurt that has been carefully concealed for years. 

There was no press conference, no communiqué, no Q&A session. The data was “released”  as inconspicuously as possible. It took me an hour hunting through the Health Ministry website before I found the plain looking GoogleDrive modestly labeled “Downloads.”

Seeing the numbers, you can understand why they wanted to keep them under wraps.

The data itself is seismic. As you’d expect in a country ravaged by the worst economic and social crisis seen in its last 150 years of history, it’s bad…really bad.

Reports go up through the final week of 2016. The final one has a cute editorial about diarrheas produced by rotaviruses…a disease you could easily prevent with a vaccine, if that vaccine hadn’t vanished from the country several months ago.

Worst was to come.

Venezuela has had a problem with mosquito-transmitted diseases for a couple decades now, but things last year were just too much: over 29,100 cases of Dengue and 59,348 cases of Zika are pretty bad, but nothing, really —nothing— compared to the spike in malaria cases: 240,613 cases. That’s a 76.4% increase from 2015, which was already a terrible year. Imagine every single one in Puerto Cabello has Malaria and you’re still 20,000 cases short.

Seeing the numbers, you can understand why they wanted to keep them under wraps.  Venezuela literally eradicated Malaria 60 years ago with one of the most successful public health campaigns in the world. The first time Chávez had to deal with it we had a little more than 44,000 cases and it was already considered a serious problem.

The 324 confirmed cases of diphtheria might not be as spectacular as the malaria epidemic, but they are alarming considering Venezuela had entirely eradicated this perfectly preventable disease in 1992. Diphtheria is public health on easy mode: all you need to control it is a vaccine. A health system that can’t cope with diphtheria can’t cope, period.

That seems to be true in general. Epidemiologists have long seen child and maternal mortality rates as one of the best proxies for the health system’s overall effectiveness. The mortality rate for babies under one year old rose 30.12% in relation to 2015, for a total of 11,466 deaths. And 756 women died either in pregnancy or in the first six weeks after giving birth: a shocking 67% increase in the maternal mortality rate from 2015.

Perhaps the real good news is that the ministry is publishing these reports again.

Any good news?

Well, we didn’t have a single case of Yellow Fever or West Nile Fever. That’s good.

But perhaps the real good news is that the ministry is publishing these reports again. Finally. And hopefully regularly. So thanks for that, Minister Caporale. Now how about you stop lying about how efficient the Venezuelan healthcare system is and get to work? There is a lot to do.